John Rentoul: An A-star for Gove in advanced political positioning

The Education Secretary's O-Level announcement was a trap that Nick Clegg and the teaching establishment lumbered into

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It was a media operation of which Tony Blair would have been proud.

"Return of the O-Level" was the front-page lead headline in the Daily Mail on Thursday. The Conservative Party's critics were outraged. How dare Michael Gove leak something to a Tory newspaper? The reactionary fool is trying to take us back to the 1950s. It means "two-tier" education. None of those responses mattered. The story has done the Education Secretary nothing but good.

Nick Clegg, naturally, fell straight into the trap. With the teachers' unions and the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats managed to put themselves on the wrong side of public opinion. Never mind the detail for the moment, most people will retain one simple fact from the row: that Gove wants more rigour in public exams.

That is such a big Conservative gain that it set off another round of speculation on the Political Betting website about Gove's chances of becoming prime minister.

I will come in a moment to the merits of the "return of the O-level", which is, of course, not an accurate prospectus (it is a Daily Mail headline, after all). But first, the politics. It was interesting, even if it was not new, that Gove told the House of Commons on Thursday, when he was summoned to explain the Mail story: "In matters of ideology, I am a Blairite."

The question, though, is whether Gove is an early Blairite or a late Blairite. The early Blair was good at using the Mail to get New Labour's message across, despite his, and Alastair Campbell's, contempt for so much of what the newspaper stands for. The later Blair was less interested in image management – partly because the Mail had reverted to Tory type by then – and more interested in how to make public services better.

So far, most of David Cameron's attempt to be the heir to Blair has been an inconsistent mess. Gove has been more successful. He has done early-Blair positioning, such as, earlier this month, saying that all primary-school pupils should learn to recite poetry, which appeals to traditionalists and liberals alike. Some of his symbolic positioning has been clumsier, such as his privately funded plan to send copies of the King James Bible to all English and Welsh schools. But it is not actually a terrible idea.

And he has pursued, from the start, a strategy for raising standards across the schools system. The big change was not free schools (which are, I think, more symbol than substance) but the huge expansion of the academy schools programme. Gove has continued to set up new academies to replace weak schools, but he has also allowed successful schools to convert to academy status. This second phase is important and not well understood: it is producing schools and chains of schools that can act as sponsors for new academies, thus accelerating the most hopeful trends in school improvement.

This relates to a point that Alastair Campbell has been making all week, promoting his diaries of the 2001-03 period (I review them on page 66). At the Mile End Group last week, he said that Cameron and Blair were both "completely focused on winning and persuading the media to their side – but actually what New Labour did was that they did the strategy first and then they did the persuasion. Cameron just does the persuasion".

It is that lack of strategic consistency that Campbell thinks explains the Government's troubles. No wonder the Prime Minister had his doubts, for example, about the top-rate tax cut in the Budget, which ran counter to the rebranding of the Tories as the Not the Rich People's Party.

Gove, by contrast, has a strategy, which he follows through, and with which his persuasive symbols are consistent. I know a lot of the liberal left, whom I regard as the conservatives on education, think that "Blairite" and "Thatcherite" are interchangeable terms and that Gove is the evil spawn of their union. But I disagree. Gove has held the line against the genuine reactionaries in his party, who want to go back to grammar schools. He says that extending selection is not necessary to achieve higher standards, which is an immensely tactful way of putting it. And he is right that high expectations, strong leadership, good teaching and rigorous testing are the important factors.

That is why the symbolism of the O-level is good news. Not because Gove literally wants to go back to 1986, which was when Margaret Thatcher's government replaced O-levels with GCSEs, but because he wants to restore public confidence in the exam system.

That confidence has certainly been undermined by poisonous propaganda in the Mail, but not everything in the Mail is pure fiction. Grade inflation is real, and commercial competition between exam boards has fed it. So a single exam board is sensible, and trying to restore some of the rigour of the O-level for all pupils, rather than the 20 per cent who used to take it, is the kind of ambition that is needed. As Gove pointed out last week, 80 per cent of pupils in Singapore sit O-levels, which are still set and sold by Cambridge University.

The details of Gove's plan have to go through Cabinet committees, as Kenneth Clarke said on BBC1's Question Time. Clegg chairs the Home Affairs committee, with Clarke, a former Education Secretary himself, as his deputy. Gove's aspiration is clear and popular, and it is hard to see how a reformed exam could be more "two-tier" than the present one, in which 58 per cent of pupils get five A-C grades.

Despite the enthusiasm for the idea that I expressed the last time I wrote about him, it is unlikely that Gove will ever be prime minister. He lacks the televisual charm of a Blair or Cameron. But in his school reforms, as in his defence of freedom of expression at the Leveson inquiry, I think he is the most impressive member of the Cabinet by some margin.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul // independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

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